A Community Contribution by Michael Gorsline
My experience is that GTD asks us to do a lot of of writing. It encourages us to write as we brainstorm, even on a cocktail napkin if necessary. It suggests we identify next actions in writing, and it even recommends we carry around something to capture thoughts and To Do ideas (next actions & projects) with everywhere we go. If we’re going to do all this writing it might be worth reflecting a moment on why it’s so worthwhile to do.
There’s a reason we have blackboards in classrooms, white boards in conference rooms and why I will go to great lengths to make sure I have a white board in any consulting room where I do coaching or therapy. You’ve likely heard of the famous 7 plus or minus 2 chunks of information that we’re able to hold in working memory at any one time. Because of the upper-limit to our cognitive capacities, our speaking and auditory capabilities top out at roughly one thread at a time. That’s it. One. That one thread can move more or less quickly, but we can’t speak in several parallel threads at once. We also can’t listen accurately to several conversations at once. We can switch back and forth among them rapidly and catch the gist of them, but it is rapid switching rather than really doing more that one at a time. Our limited working memory also sets the boundaries of the complexity of thoughts that we can hold in mind. That is unless we cheat a bit. Here are two major ways we can cheat and feel good about it:
Here is where the writing comes in. Writing acts as extra-somatic memory—memory that resides outside the body. Let’s say I have a client that is trying to figure out what might be causing her child’s tantrums. So I ask her to tell me about a specific instance, which is where we usually start. As she tells me about the tantrum I begin sketching out a diagram of what she’s describing up on the whiteboard. It might start out with the phrase “Zoo Tantrum” in the middle, circled. As she cites possible contributing factors, several lines begin jutting out, each with a another phrase, such as “overstimulated”; “low on food”; “feeling jealous” about what his sibling ordered for lunch that he wished he’d ordered; and even reasons like the child having a “temperament” that makes him more prone to irritability in stressful circumstances.
With the diagram on the board, my client is able to shuttle back and forth from each of those ideas to represent all of them mentally, sometimes side by side, sometimes one after another, creating a sort of parallel processing—representing several ideas virtually at once. Or at least quickly enough that they can all be juggled in rapid succession to make comparisons that it would not be possible to make nearly as quickly if we were limited only to talking about those same ideas. My clients often find looking at a diagram of their problem so compelling that they jump out of their seat, needing no invitation, and start adding to the diagram. It is almost as if they can’t stay seated because the power of the ideas being generated is just too much to merely talk about. So writing things down has an effect that is a lot like adding a giant chunk of RAM to your computer, and very inexpensive RAM at that, which enables a powerful kind of parallel processing.
Freeing up RAM, by Using Your Hard Drive for Storage
The next piece is more widely known, but still well worth looking our attention. Our 3 x 5 notecard, the GTD Outlook plugin by Netcentrics, or the note we take on our phone, all function as extra-somatic memory in a another important way. This sort of memory is a bit more like computer storage, such as your hard drive on your PC, or the storage space on your mp3 player. David Allen has made the following metaphor a centerpiece of GTD: Offload information from your mental RAM so that it is freed up for other tasks like creativity and flexible thinking. That notepad or hipster PDA you’ve got in your purse is functioning as a hard drive. If you get the info out of your RAM and onto your hard drive, you don’t have to keep using up your valuable, much less available RAM space, your working memory, to keep the ideas represented. So if writing to enhance thinking was like artificially extending (remember we’re cheating here) your RAM capacity—how much brute RAM you have to work with; this storage idea is more like making sure not to clutter whatever capacity of RAM you have in the first place with information that could easily be kept somewhere else.
Well why can’t we just jot things down once we get home or just do so every once in a while? That is the brilliance of GTD’s admonition to practice “ubiquitous capture”, always having some way to record those thoughts immediately, by the bedside, in the car, at the grocery store. One of the first authors whose work I fell in love with used to practice exactly this skill of ubiquitous capture. John Steinbeck used to carry a small notepad with him everywhere he went, and furiously jotted down notes in all kinds of circumstances. He had even been known to interrupt a romantic interlude, yes, that’s what I mean, to jot down a thought or image that he didn’t want to lose. Now I don’t think you have to make ubiquitous capture quite that ubiquitous, but the sheer dedication that Steinbeck had to capturing valuable thoughts, I think, makes a memorable example. I’m sure his lover at the time found it memorable too. This is also a reminder that being really smart doesn’t obviate having to write things down. Brilliant people like Steinbeck know the value of cheating, and it actually enabled his brilliance to flower as it did.
So all those little ideas that you’ve got zipping around like so many gnats add up and clog up your RAM. Of course the actual functioning of the brain is more complex than our RAM analogy. The miscellaneous To Dos and responsibilities aren’t just taking up RAM, they actually require using up additional cognitive resources, for instance executive function, which Oliver Starr previously posted about, to shift our attention around like a spotlight onto what we’re trying to keep track of. But for our purposes, offloading those ideas and images immediately leaves you with only the single idea, “check my ‘trusted system’” to keep track of, rather than the myriad details we would have buzzing around otherwise.
Finally it is worth giving a nod to how much writing has affected the lot of humankind. Most of the conveniences we have today would not be around if it weren’t for this special bit of extra-somatic memory, which science, much of art, and so many of our greatest achievements rest upon—and which we usually take for granted. And now that we’ve got access to this ability to cheat, not just with pen and ink, but with an array of digital devices as well; when we choose not to write it down, voice note it, etc we’re choosing to toss away a giant chunk of our exceedingly valuable RAM. So next time you do a little paper and pencil brainstorming, send yourself an email, or draw a diagram so you can understand something better; take a second to remember what those little tools are doing for you. That extra RAM is there for the taking. Grab extra RAM more often. It’s darn close to free.